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Threat to Canadian Embassy in Iran not as dire as suggested

Harper government’s decision to sever relations with Iran was not based on a direct threat to the Canadian embassy but on ideology

When the Canadian government announced its decision to sever diplomatic relations with Iran unilaterally in 2012, it cited Iran's "blatant disregard" of the Vienna Convention, which guarantees the protection of diplomatic personnel, while describing the Iranian regime as “a significant threat to global peace and security.” However, according to a report obtained by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), the decision to close the embassy had little to do with threats to Canadian diplomats and was entirely political.

Canada’s relationship with Iran has never been pleasant. For those who never saw Ben Affleck’s 2012 blockbuster “Argo,” Canada played a key role in exfiltrating American diplomats after radicalised Iranian students seized the US embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Due to Canada’s role in the “Canadian Caper” affair, it closed its embassy and withdrew its personnel. However, in 1988, following the Iran-Iraq war, Canada reopened its embassy, due to its key role as part on an international peacekeeping force. By the mid-1990s trade links between Canada and Iran began to expand rapidly, and by 2000, trade between Canada and Iran totalled more than $700 million, making Iran one of Canada’s largest export markets in the region.

However, Canada’s improving relationship with Iran came to a crashing end in 2003, when Saeed Mortazavi, the hard-line chief prosecutor in Tehran, was involved in the beating of a Canadian photojournalist, Zahara Kazemi, to death in Tehran’s notorious Elvin Prison. According to an Iranian doctor that examined Ms. Kazemi and was later granted asylum in Canada, she had been “beaten, tortured and raped” prior to her death and found “severe bruising over her body, broken fingers, a broken nose, missing fingernails and toenails, flogging marks and a ruptured eardrum.”

The horror of Kazemi’s murder galvanised the Canadian public and from this point onward has served as the “raison d’être” for fiercely anti-Iranian policies. Every year since Kazemi’s murder, the Canadian government - both Liberal and Conservative - has introduced resolutions at the UN General Assembly, condemning Iran’s human rights record.

However, since Stephen Harper came into power in 2006, Canada’s policies toward Iran have taken on an increasingly ideological bent, suggesting an abandonment of interests-based decision-making. This was especially evident in the years following Harper’s securing of a majority government in 2011. From this point onward, Harper was able to shape Canadian policy without having to placate other political parties in parliament. In November 2011, Canada passed a round of sanctions that cut Iran off from the Canadian banking system. However, this move prompted outrage from Canada’s large Iranian expatriate community because it unexpectedly froze a number of accounts of Canadians of Iranian descent and barred others from transferring money to their families in Iran.

Western concerns about Iran escalated in November 2011, when a group of Iranian protestors scaled the British embassy walls. According to the CBC, in the aftermath of this incident, the Canadian government ordered an investigation into the security of its embassy in Tehran. The investigation involved a series of meetings between Canadian diplomats and high-level Iranian officials, and in consultation with experts and other embassies. When the report was competed, on 24 January, 2011, it noted that while Canada had “already instituted tough sanctions without significant blowback, we do not believe that our own mission is a member of the 'front line' group" of states that the Iranian regime viewed as a threat, like the US, Britain, or Israel.

The report recounts meetings between Canadian and Iranian officials concerning the security of the embassy. According to the report, during these talks, the Iranians were clearly “hoping to ... reassure us on a range of mission security and operations issues.” Indeed, “The relatively warm reception confirms the importance Iran places on maintaining some level of diplomatic ties with Canada and in particular the Iranian diplomatic presence in Canada.”

On 8 September, 2012, Canada stunned its allies when it abruptly severed relations with Iran, sparking intense speculation as to what prompted such action. Some pointed to the impending release of Ben Affleck’s film “Argo,” while others suggested that it fit the escalating pattern evident in Harper’s Iran policy. Later, Canadian officials suggested that Canada had been re-evaluating its position in Iran for several months, and tried to cast the move in terms of the regional turmoil caused by the Arab Spring.

However, given the report’s conclusion that Iran wished to maintain friendly relations with Canada, one has to wonder what Canadian Foreign Minister, John Baird was referring to when he tried to justify his decision: “We felt that it’s simply no longer safe to have representatives of the government of Canada in Tehran.”

The Canadian move has been a major source of controversy. As former Canadian Ambassador, John Mundy observed, “this is the first time in decades that a Canadian prime minister, Liberal or Conservative, appears to be advocating approaches that reduce diplomatic opportunities for peace during an international crisis.” Another Canadian diplomat, Daniel Moglat, observed after the closure: “Canadian embassies, like the one just closed in Iran, exist to serve a number of purposes. One purpose is to speak for Canada, and to listen. When you close an embassy, you are closing your ears, shutting your eyes and covering your mouth.” In other words, the move was not based on practical concerns but on the Harper government’s ideological hatred for Iran, a belief that further underscored a year ago when Baird announced that he was “deeply sceptical” of the Joint Plan of Action.

In the end, this new report reinforces the view that the Harper government’s decision to sever relations with Iran was not based on a direct threat to the Canadian embassy but on ideology. As the world moves toward reconciling differences with Iran over its controversial nuclear program, the Canadian government needs to reconsider whether it wants to continue its ideological approach to dealing with Iran or recognise that its interests are better served by diplomacy. Only time will tell.

-Bryan R Gibson recently completed a PhDin International History at the London School of Economics and is the author of Covert Relationship: American Foreign Policy, Intelligence and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988 (Praeger, 2010).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: File picture dated December 25, 2002 shows Saeed Mortazavi in Tehran (AFP).

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